Buying vegetables that look fresh rather than those that feel fresh. It’s no secret that the freshness of the ingredients affects the quality of the meal. Unfortunately, most home cooks rely on visual clues to determine which vegetables are fresh. Produce suppliers and supermarkets know this and use waxes, preservatives and other tricks to keep produce looking fresh as long as possible, but underneath, that produce is losing taste and texture.
Best: Pick produce by feel. Touch the stem, stalk or roots of a vegetable—whatever part would have drawn water from the ground or from the plant. The drier this feels, the older the vegetable likely is.
Examples: The root end of an onion should feel pliable, not dry... the stem of a green pepper or the bottom of a head of lettuce should feel moist.
Using water as an ingredient. Water has essentially no flavor. Most recipes that call for water would be more flavorful and interesting if another liquid, perhaps chicken or vegetable broth, were used in its place.
Example: Cook white rice in broth rather than water for a far more flavorful side dish.
Adding seasonings without first testing them. There’s no going back when you toss spices into a dish that you’ve prepared, especially when it comes to salt. Instead, spoon a small amount of whatever you’re cooking into a tiny dish, then add a small amount of the seasonings and taste the result before seasoning the rest of the meal.
If you’re adding spices to a dish and not following a tested recipe, use no more than two or three spices. More than three spices in one dish starts to confuse the palate.
Trusting the clock when cooking meat or fish. Just because a recipe says, "Cook for 10 minutes," it doesn’t mean that’s what you should do. Your stove, your pan or the size of the cut of meat or fish you selected could be significantly different from the one used to test the recipe, which means that your meal could end up substantially over- or undercooked even if you follow the recipe perfectly.
Some recipes attempt to account for this problem by offering a range of cooking times—such as "Cook for eight to 12 minutes," for example, but that doesn’t really solve the problem. Many home cooks arbitrarily select the midpoint when a range of cooking times is supplied, while many others choose the longest time mentioned to make sure that meats are cooked through and safe to eat—resulting in overcooked, rubbery meals. Instead, use a meat thermometer to determine when the protein you’re cooking has reached its proper temperature.
Poultry, pork and fish typically are cooked properly when the thickest part of the meat reaches 165°F at its center. The proper temperature for steak depends on how you like your steak cooked. Rare is 125°F... medium is 140°F... and well-done is 160°F at the center of the cut of meat.
Slicing into meat to see if it is cooked through. Cutting into meat as it’s cooking or shortly after it is done cooking allows the juice inside to flow out, taking much of the flavor with it. Instead, use a meat thermometer to see whether meat is cooked sufficiently, as described above.
Meats generally should not be sliced or served immediately after they have finished cooking, either, to avoid similar juice and flavor loss. Steaks should be allowed to rest for five to 10 minutes. Larger pieces of meat, including whole roasted turkeys, pork shoulder or leg of lamb, should be allowed to rest for 15 to 20 minutes.
Deglazing exclusively with wine. Fat and tiny caramelized pieces of protein typically remain in the pan after meat, poultry or seafood has been cooked. Most home cooks know that this residue, called "fond," has wonderful flavor and can form the basis of a sauce. But many also assume, incorrectly, that wine is the only liquid they can add to the pan to make this sauce, a process called deglazing.
In fact, pans can be deglazed with just about any cool liquid. Spirits, broth, fruit juice or coconut milk are all valid choices. The best liquid to select usually is one closely associated with the ethnicity of the meal you are trying to prepare.
Examples: Deglaze with pineapple juice for a Hawaiian dish... deglaze with tequila for a Mexican dish.
Even if you don’t have a specific ethnicity of food in mind, deglazing with something other than wine is a great way to make a recipe that you’ve prepared many times taste different and new.
Bottom Line/Personal interviewed Chef Todd Mohr, founder of WebCookingClasses.com, an online video cooking school. Based in Apex, North Carolina, Chef Mohr previously served as executive chef for corporate and government dining rooms, responsible for planning and executing meals for up to 15,000 people. www.WebCookingClasses.com